Mike Nesbitt: UUP leader proves he still has an eye for a headline

Mike Nesbitt
Image caption Mike Nesbitt's rallying cry of 'let battle commence' ensures a change of the Stormont political game

As a former TV presenter, Mike Nesbitt has a penchant for grabbing a headline.

Last summer, he pulled out of the Stormont Executive when Peter Robinson was away, initially wrong footing the DUP as it tried to respond to allegations that Provisional IRA members were involved in the murder of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan.

When Peter Robinson returned, he had to engage in some unpopular tactics, such as the DUP's rolling ministerial resignations, to buy time for Stormont.

However, his successor Arlene Foster reaped the dividend in the assembly election, by maintaining her party's dominance.

The DUP has more than a two to one advantage over the Ulster Unionists.

Mr Nesbitt has undoubtedly lost some of the momentum built up by last year's Westminster election.

Image caption The SDLP have said they are under no extra pressure following the UUP's announcement

But, he hasn't abandoned his sense of timing.

Thursday's inaugural meeting of the assembly looked like it would be all about protocol and procedure.

Mrs Foster was itching to get back to the DUP's stand at the Balmoral Agricultural Show.

The TUV leader Jim Allister spiced up proceedings by launching an attack on the new principal deputy speaker, Sinn Féin's Caitríona Ruane.

Then, at 15:10 BST, the story changed.

Mike Nesbitt's announcement that, so far as he is concerned, the programme for government negotiations are over surprised MLAs beyond his own party ranks.

His rallying call of "let battle commence" ensures the political game at Stormont will change.

Business in the assembly could start looking a little more like Westminster, although for historic reasons it's hard to imagine the DUP and Sinn Féin sitting on the same side of the chamber facing their opponents.

Image caption Sinn Féin said the UUP decision as a repudiation of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement

The SDLP insist the Ulster Unionist decision does not put them under extra pressure.

They will continue to negotiate about the executive's future policy.

But, with Mike Nesbitt enjoying the extra speaking rights and other privileges accorded to an official opposition, SDLP politicians will inevitably need to consider whether they will pale by comparison.

Dismissive

Not only do they need to consider the impact of having the UUP outside the executive, but also the more pugnacious role smaller parties like People Before Profit and the Greens might play in the future.

Sinn Féin reckons Mike Nesbitt has repudiated the principles of the Good Friday Agreement that David Trimble signed up to 1998.

The DUP is dismissive, insisting Mr Nesbitt is "running into opposition having lost the election".

DUP sources claim the Ulster Unionists were so semi-detached when they were in the power-sharing coalition that this latest move will change little.

That said, Arlene Foster herself told me on Monday that "perhaps it would be more honest" if those who previously opposed the executive from the inside did so instead from the outside.

Mike Nesbitt has taken her at her word and we now have five years to work out if his gambit pays off.

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